COVID-19 Resource Center

January 14, 2022

Letter from Birmingham Jail: The Radicalization of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

For roughly the past forty years the country has celebrated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and used the day to retell of his efforts to realize racial and social justice in America. However, the man we celebrate is not the man who was. The picture we are too often presented is one of a placid and rhetorically proficient social justice warrior, who through nonviolence sought to placate America into mending its racial divide.

That picture is intentionally incomplete, and wholly devoid of any brushstroke that would depict him for what he truly was: radical to his core. Though much has been written, it is not widely accepted that Dr. King was a radical figure whose words and actions have been desalinated to make him more palatable to the American public. Anyone responsible for this ongoing identity theft disserves him and dishonors his memory.

One need look no further than his Letter from Birmingham Jail. For those unfamiliar with the missive, it was written by Dr. King while he was incarcerated for spearheading a peaceful protest in Birmingham, Alabama. The letter was a reply to fellow clergy who, while espousing ally-ship, questioned the means Dr. King and his contemporaries used in their fight for civil rights. Those supposed friends of the Movement felt that Dr. King and the African American people should “wait” for equality, insisting that freedom would arrive in its due time. Essentially they said to him “now is not the time to politicize this,” while offering thoughts and prayers. In response to his colleagues, Dr. King – in the parlance of our time – read them for filth.

How, he asks incredulously, can you not expect a people who have had every door shut in their face to take direct action against their systemic oppression? Every avenue was traveled, and every other means was exhausted, he explains. He advises his colleagues that African Americans sought relief through the courts, which upheld and enforced laws that were unnatural and immoral. He reminds them that everything Hitler did was “legal,” though unquestionably immoral, and anyone of character and intestinal fortitude would have fought against it, as they should fight the systemic oppression of the marginalized in our nation.

He recalls for them that African Americans sought the aid of politicians, but with the likes of Bull Conner and Albert Boutwell, his people saw two different faces of the same man, both of which were virulently opposed to equality and justice for the African American people. He reminds his detractors of the efforts taken to implore the assistance of economic leaders, who lied to the faces of those leading the Movement, leaving up “colored” and “white” signs in their establishments, despite promising to remove them.

The recommended and sensible appeals failed to bring about the desired result. Seeking a means to have his message heard, Dr. King became radicalized by those intent on making racial and social injustice part of the American fabric. This young man employed a tactical plan that was so simple it was genius: he trusted those who were vile and violent to be themselves. Why were high school-aged children allowed to march? So the world could watch public servants who swore to protect and serve knock those children to the ground while tearing their clothes and their skin with fire hoses; so that all nations and generations to come could see Walter Gadsden, a child peacefully protesting for the rights etched into the cornerstone of our country’s foundation, attacked by a police dog in a canonized photo captured by Bill Hudson; so that the light of the beacon of freedom could be turned on the Shining City on the Hill, exposing to the world that which was thought unfathomable from a self-proclaimed “democracy,” but that which African Americans experienced every day. Radical thinking, and radical planning, from a radical man.

Dr. King understood that “injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent, determined action.” It is clear from his epistle that Dr. King intended to cause what his partner and proselyte, Rep. John Lewis, called “good trouble.” Despite the snarl of dogs, the roar of shotguns, the carnage from bombings, unending threats, beatings, imprisonment, and the various other forms of harassment to which he and those in the Movement were subject, Dr. King was determined to implement his plan to bring about the change sought.

In implementing that plan of peaceful but persistent non-violent civil disobedience, he became seen as an extremist and a threat to a government and a nation unwilling to see justice prevail. Docile folks who pose no threat to the establishment aren’t themselves threatened, surveilled, or blackmailed. Unimposing people with no message, and without a righteous call to action, do not have their homes bombed in an attempt to secure their silence. Those who do not radically challenge a system of evils are not beaten and clubbed. Radicals are gunned down in cold blood by those who fear the rising tide of opposition.

Dr. King embraced the role of a radical. He says in the Letter that he “gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist.” He went even further, challenging those who considered themselves allies to action. To those who were empathetic but hesitant to fight alongside a radical “extremist,” he asked “[W]ill we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”

In the Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. King attempts to explain that any extremism he displayed was patterned after those radical extremists who came before him, including the country’s founding fathers and the Godhead of the Christian church. And in that way, he inferred he was only doing the very thing that had birthed some of the most major revolutions in Western history, including the freedom of the colonies from the stranglehold of the Crown, and the ending of the practice of chattel slavery.

His exasperation is felt when he says in the letter that he had hoped his fair-weather allies would see his cause, and in the admission that followed: “Maybe I expected too much.” The question we must all ask ourselves, especially those who espouse themselves allies, is did he?


Authored by Grant C. Wright, Esq., a partner in Cipriani & Werner‘s Woodbridge, New Jersey office and a member of the firm’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee